Florida Chocolatiers Create Handcrafted Treats for Valentine's Day

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Food and drink made out of cacao beans, the source of cocoa, have been around since pre-Columbian Mexico, and Europeans adopted a cocoa drink as early as the 1500s, but the first edible solid chocolate wasn't invented until the mid-19th Century. Chocolate really gained popularity in the early 1900s, when family-owned companies like Hershey, Cadbury, and Mars brought the candy into the mainstream. Today, chocolate is big business, with the global chocolate market expected to reach $98.3 billion by 2016, according to research firm Markets and Markets.

Though most chocolate consumed is mass-produced, there's a good number of small chocolatiers who prefer to craft their goodies by hand from the finest sourced materials. Made without preservatives or chemicals, these are time-consuming to make and perishable, but the taste and richness are well worth the dedication and expense.

South Florida is home to some master chocolatiers, with many of them using recipes handed down over generations and making their confections by hand.

Schakolad Chocolates

7740 Nova Drive, Suite 3, Davie; 954-472-6155

1303 A SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-522-6884

Visit schakolad.com.

In 1969, Baruch Schaked began his confectionery career working for his father-in-law, who owned one of South America's largest chocolate factories. After traveling extensively through Europe to learn the art of old-world chocolate making, Schaked opened his own shop in South Florida. In 1995, his son, Edgar, took over the business to keep the family legacy alive, opening the first Schakolad Chocolate Factory in Winter Park. Though the company has grown, with franchises across the country and in Israel, each individual shop is run like a family business. The Cohen family owns and operates the two Schakolad locations in South Florida, with Lauren Cohen managing the Davie location and sister Samantha in charge of the recently opened shop on the 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale.

Lauren Cohen, who has a degree in hospitality management from UCF, says she's always wanted to run a shop like this since having a chocolate-themed party for her eighth birthday. Finally, the opportunity arose last year.

"My family and I were eating dinner in Davie, and we saw the Schakolad Chocolate Factory," she says. "We stopped in, and my dad started talking to the owner, who was interested in selling. It was almost fate."

Cohen says that each shop is, indeed, a factory.

"We have over 70 types of truffles, nut clusters, and fruits, and we dip everything by hand to order. We do chocolate-covered strawberries, but you won't see them in our display case, because we make them to order."

Cohen says the ability to custom-make orders on the spot, combined with the high-quality ingredients used, gives her shop the advantage.

"The other day, someone wanted a chocolate bar that said, 'Happy birthday and thank you for watching my house.' That's something you can't find in a store."

Jimmie's Chocolates & Cafe

148 N. Federal Highway, Dania Beach; 954-922-0441

1426 NE 26th St., Wilton Manors; 954-563-8655

2621 S. University Drive, Davie (opening spring 2015)

Visit jimmieschocolates.com.

Jimmie's Chocolates & Cafe has been a South Florida fixture since 1947, when Jimmie Vonglis and his wife, Gussie, opened the little shop. Although ownership has changed, with partners Rodney Harrison and Ken Smith buying Jimmie's in the late '90s, the chocolate making remains true to the original. Two kinds of dark chocolate are used for the chocolate base, with no wax or preservatives added. General Manager Rob Granado explains that after all these decades, the chocolate factory looks pretty much the same.

"The newest piece of equipment we have is probably from the 1960s," says Granado. "It's literally like the scene from I Love Lucy in the chocolate factory."

Another big difference between Jimmie's and other chocolate makers: the human touch.

"Every marshmallow and truffle is hand-dipped," Granado says. "I guess you call it artisanal now, but we're just doing things the way they've always been done here."

And although new flavors of truffles are always being introduced, old favorites seem to be the best.

"Nothing's going to replace an Oreo or a salted pretzel dipped in chocolate," says Granado.

Although the company is expanding, with a third location opening in Davie in the spring, Granado says there are no plans to franchise out or do mass mail-order sales.

"We want Jimmie's to be a real place," he says. "A chocolate shop should look and smell like a chocolate shop. Some shops look more like high-end jewelry stores, and that's OK. We want to be your friendly neighborhood chocolate maker that makes artisanal, handcrafted chocolates."

J. Williams Chocolate Co.

369 Puritan Road, West Palm Beach; 561-296-2413

Visit jwchocolateco.com.

Two and a half years ago, Holly McCloskey was a mom of four children who happened to make killer chocolate.

"I would make chocolate for dinner parties and people would ask me where did I get this chocolate," she says. "When I said I made it, they didn't believe me."

After convincing people that, indeed, she was the chocolatier, her friends then begged her to make and sell her wares professionally.

"That's how it started," McCloskey says of her hobby turned business.

Word quickly spread about the company, named after her dad.

"I probably should, but I haven't done any advertising or marketing. It's all word of mouth."

Now, McCloskey makes and sells chocolate out of her commercial kitchen in West Palm Beach and also sells the confections online and to local businesses. The entrepreneur says the key to success is her attention to detail.

"All my chocolate is handmade, but the most important thing is research," she says. "I took a lot of time finding the best-quality chocolates and ingredients. Everything is natural, with no preservatives. When I use vanilla, it's real vanilla bean, not extract."

Though McCloskey makes a wide variety of chocolates, the most popular are her Monkey Bars.

"They're peanuts, pretzels, and peanut butter-infused caramel covered in dark or milk chocolate with sea salt on top. They take two days to make, and people go crazy over them."

Other big sellers are bananas foster, cappuccino, and strawberry chocolates, but the chocolatier says almost anything goes when it comes to pleasing her customers.

"We can do anything for our clients, because we're small. If someone wants fruits in white chocolate or fortune cookies with their company logo inside, we can do it."

McCloskey is pleased with her success but hopes to build out a true retail chocolate shop in the future, separate from her kitchen/workshop. She's also constantly inventing and experimenting.

"We create new flavors all the time. We can always improve on things."

Hoffman's Chocolates

5910 Lake Worth Road, Greenacres; 561-967-2213

920 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-368-4320

19057 N. Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens; 561-626-2009

705 Lake Ave., Lake Worth; 561-766-2517

5250 Town Center Circle, Boca Raton; 561-750-0021

3341 Sheridan St., Hollywood; 954-368-4320

Visit hoffmans.com.

When Paul Hoffman Sr. opened a small candy shop four decades ago, his idea was to have a business that his family could run together. Hoffman found he had a knack for the sweet trade, and soon, his confections, made with the finest ingredients, had a loyal following. Through the years, Hoffman's Chocolates has grown, with half a dozen permanent locations and additional pop-up kiosks during season. At the main factory in Greenacres, the chocolate-making process is carefully monitored, from mixing and cooking to measuring and cutting each piece.

Chuck Mohr, president of Hoffman's Chocolates, says that although Hoffman's is now a subsidiary of BBX Sweet Holdings, the chocolate is still made using the original handwritten recipes. In fact, the formula is so dear to the company that the original paper is stored in a vault. He explains that changing the recipe or cutting corners to improve the company's bottom line is simply not an option.

"In a 40-year-old company, you can't mess too much with the product," says Mohr. "We're serving generations of customers, and they will notice. We had to make the commitment that we wouldn't change the recipe."

That strategy has paid off, because the local chocolate manufacturer was named one of America's best chocolate shops by Bon Appétit magazine in 1993, and in 2000, its Easter basket was given kudos by the Wall Street Journal.

Mohr says that although Hoffman's Chocolates is in the gourmet chocolate niche, business has remained surprisingly good even through economic downturns. The answer may be that, even in tough times, when a new car or a pair of luxury shoes might not be an option, a pound of chocolate is likely still an affordable splurge.

"Many of our customers give our chocolates as gifts. Others buy for themselves. Me?" he says. "I believe in self-indulgence. What better way to say, 'I've earned this today' than with some gourmet chocolate?"

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter @LaineDoss and Facebook.

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